ENGLISHMAN IN BENIN CITY, 1981 (Part Twenty-Seven)
“So whose panties are those?” Adolo asked, pointing at something.
She had just finished wiping down my feverish body. She sat on the chair. Felicia sat on the table and Steve stood, holding on to the open door of the wardrobe.
I didn’t know what Adolo was referring to.
“What panties?” I asked.
“These ones,” She said.
Steve looked in her direction, and answered, “Gina’s”
I was weary and in a dreamlike state. The fan whirling above was noisy, and as it blew the air on my wet body, I felt bone-rattling shivering spells.
I really wanted to cover my body with the blanket.
“She must have left them there when she was here,” Steve said.
“Gina?” Adolo asked. “Who is Gina?”
“Guess you may say Moyo’s new girl,” Steve said.
“Moyo? He has a new girlfriend?” Adolo asked.
“Which Gina?” Felicia asked.
“I think she works at Ekenwan,” Steve replied.
“At the bukateria?” Felicia asked.
“Yes,” said Steve.
“You know this Gina?” Adolo asked Felicia.
“I think so,” responded Felicia.
“When was she here?” Adolo asked.
“Couple of days ago,” Steve said. “Yes, yes.”
“Did she come with you to the funeral?” Adolo asked.
“No, she did not,” Felicia responded. “When did Moyo start dating Gina?”
“Guess they’ve known each other for some time,” Steve volunteered. “But it just got serious now only recently.”
“She’s been coming here frequently?” Adolo wanted to know. “How come I never ran into her here?”
“She’s been here only once,” Steve said, “I think.”
“It’s probably just a one-night thing,” Felicia said. “I can’t believe he’s seriously dating her. She’s only a housemaid at the bukateria.”
“She is running a bukateria at the University of Benin?” Adolo asked.
“No, no, no,” Felicia said, “she’s a housemaid of a madam selling food there.”
“It’s that kind of girl Moyo is dating?” Adolo asked Steve.
“She very attractive,” Steve said. “Really pretty.”
“But how shameless of him to be dating a housemaid,” Felicia concluded. “Even if it’s just a fling. He’s taking advantage of her.”
Adolo looked in my direction, saying, ”And where is she now?”
“At her village,” Steve said, “for her father’s funeral. I think it takes place tomorrow. We were planning to go. And now they are both sick, Rufus and Moyo.”
I somehow realized they were talking about me at this point. It had felt as if I had been watching a movie and it all had nothing to do with me. But at that point, I began to make sense of the connection between their story and myself, in a hazy way.
The room began to spin, slowly at first, then faster and faster while dipping back and forth at several intervals.
“…but it’s also unfair to him….leaving her panties…behind….trapping him…that’s what these girls do….just a child….no, no education….I’m certain….she can’t read or write….too thin…not all that actually….a housemaid….just a village girl…total disgrace….one night stand only…men are so shameless….she seduced him….territory tagging….her brassier is probably in that wardrobe…plans to get pregnant for him….best to tell him…may be too late….you mean she may be pregnant….once is enough…trap has worked…. hunter turned hunted…knew exactly what she was doing….distributed her things throughout the room….shoes must be deep under the bed….and comb…thinks she’s smart…”
The spinning room began to get darker, and as the tunnel gradually closed I drifted out of the room where they were talking about me, and into another room, where space was also whirling around.
“Yes, place a penny’s worth in a separate container,” I told Iya Alakira, the woman who sold the mixture.
“You want a two pence worth separately,” Iya Alakira responded. “And a penny’s worth separately?”
I nodded, “Yes.”
“Making three pence worth on the whole?” she asked.
I nodded, “Yes.”
I dipped my hands in the pockets of my shorts and brought out the money. Was she thinking I didn’t have three pence on me? Iya Alakira gave me what I came to buy.
Grandma and grandpa were visiting us at that time, and she gave me two pence, and sent me to run and buy her some substance called Akira. Grandma had this habit of grabbing pinches from the akira mixture, placing the pinch in the middle of her tongue, and almost imperceptibly sucking at it. She would keep it in her mouth for hours. There was a permanently dark spot in the middle of her tongue where she placed the substance.
I ran all the way back home. I gave grandma her two-pence worth of the akira, and I repaired to the room I shared with my mom and sister. They were all gone to my mom’s shop and I had the entire room to myself.
I sat on my mom’s bed, brought out the akira, and open the small leaf package that Iya Alakira wrapped it with. It has a strong heady smell. I didn’t like the smell one bit, but I was not going to allow that to deter me. I did exactly what my grandmother did: I pinched a bit of it and placed it in the middle of my tongue. My mother’s Bible was underneath her pillow. I opened it randomly and turned it from page to page, not really focusing on anything in particular.
As the akira soaked into my mouth and I swallowed, gradually the room began to gyrate, and I replaced the Bible under the pillow and laid out on the bed. The room spun faster and faster, swirling, turning, and whiling like a wheel, while I tried to hold on to something to stabilize myself.
I gripped the metal sidings of the bed. But those were not enough to steady my body. As the rapid circularly movement continued, my head flew out of the window, and like a bird, I elevated and flew free, with wide wings. Iya Ngu said, “Wait, Muyo, let me join you.”
So I waited for Iya Ngu, who also wore her wings and we started flying to various parts of Benin City. She took me to an ancient shrine in the palace. Inside the palace was Chief Idah.
I had always wanted to meet Chief Idah. I saw his wood panel in the house of Dr. Joseph Nevadomsky, an anthropologist at a research institute at the University of Benin. Nevadomsky, a white American, was married to an Edo princess, giving him access to materials and places in the palace that only the palace insiders had.
He had an unusual art collection, ranging from antique Benin bronze objects to contemporary art pieces he collected from various parts of Nigeria. But most striking among his collection was a dark wood panel that he mounted either on the wall or placed on the floor leaning against the wall.
My eyes instantly locked on to the panel, a low relief object, with figures loosely chiseled into its broad body. The figures began to talk to me. It was so difficult to understand their language. It seemed like an ancient language that I was born to speak, but which I had forgotten and must now relearn.
It took me little time to learn the language of these figures.
“Who is this artist?” I asked Nevadomsky.
He handed Rufus and me two glasses of whiskey, filled them, and a faint hint of fine perfume filled my nostrils. I look in the direction from which the scent wafted and in swept one of the most graceful women I had ever seen.
“That’s by my great uncle, Chief Idah,” she said with a radiant smile.
“This is my wife,” Nevadomsky said.
We exchanged pleasantries.
“He died some two decades ago,” Mrs. Nevadomsky continued. “He was the royal artist throughout his life.”
I had read about Chief Idah, but had never seen his work.
He trained as an artist in the indigenous tradition of ancient Benin art. He traced his pedigree to several generations of chief royal artists, and his talent was so rich that he was a child prodigy and did stupendous work by the time he was a teenager.
But he soon got bored. He turned to architecture. As a royal artist, he secured a hill in Benin and carved large bedrooms, a spacious sitting room and a gigantic studio into it. He lined the walls with mirrors and moved into it. From this space, Idah began to make innovative work with pieces that bent the edges of ancient Edo art.
One of the pieces was the panel in Nevadomsky’s sitting room.
The figures on the panel, one by one, introduced themselves to me. I gradually remembered the ancient language that they spoke. It is a language that I naturally flowed into.
But what was striking of the Idah figures was the ancient woman who narrated the story of Oba Overamwen Nogbaisi. She sang her story in a high voice full of nectar, interwoven with a deep royal voice of the exiled Oba, into a colorful brocade. It was a story of triumph that s/he sang. The theme of their song was one in which they showed that the more angrily you smashed a tuber of yam with rock, the more widely its splinters flew, and the more the number of characters it fed. Beyond feeding people, some of the fragments of the smashed yam fed rodents, flies, roaches, ants, and even snakes. The song changed tempo from fast to slow, and had moments of silence balanced with moments of yelling voices.
The song told a different story from the one in the history books. It was a story in which Overamwen won the war, though the British successfully invaded and plundered his palace.
What mattered was the fact that he singlehandedly challenged the British army. He showed the bully that he led an independent people who were ready to shed their blood to defend their ancestral land from European colonizers.
He thought he was facing a white army. But when his generals came in and said it was not a white army, but an army of Hausa soldiers with black skin like his own, his crest fell. He saw where lied the power of the white man: they will break you into splinters and cudgel you until you die. Ovenramwen, at the end of the song, said the British did not understand that a yam, just like people, does not die.
When Ovenramwen wanted to commit suicide after the dark-skinned soldiers scaled the tall sacred walls of his ancestors, the palace chiefs refused to serve him the tea of Eternity. They ordered him to go outside and sit with his entire spiritual entourage in preparation for a grand festival. In his place, the royal chiefs drank the tea and they were laid out to rest.
Ovenramwen stepped out and with his court, they sat to receive the invaders.
The Hausa soldiers rushed inside the palace, and stopped in their tracks when they saw the Oba seated outside the palace with his court. They waited; and their sergeant sent for the British soldiers that commanded them.
The white officers came from the rear. When they arrived and saw the grand picture of the royal court, they were stunned. They ordered the Oba arrested. They also ordered the gold objects decorating the entire palace removed and placed together for transport back to England. They were not men of taste. They plundered the objects thinking they were gold and ivories. The ivories were real. But the gold was bronze.
Chief Idah died before I was born. I wished I met him before he died.
I told Mama Ngu that I wanted to meet Chief Idah. She said she knew where he lived in the palace, in the mansions of artists. We, therefore, flew to Chief Idah’s lodge.
He sat in a gorgeous chair carved from a single trunk of Iroko. Next to him was his Queen. I was startled. She smiled at me. It was Gina.
Iya Ngu saw my reaction. She laughed. She said, “Didn’t I ask you to marry her?”
TO BE CONTINUED